With its imposing, mostly abandoned granite-mill buildings and run-down neighborhoods full of “three-decker” tenements, Fall River, Massachusetts, once the country’s leading center of textile manufacturing, has few people who live there now that bear any connection to it. Yet one legend from the high-water mark of the city’s industrial past has endured far beyond any other Fall River story: the tale of Lizzie Borden, who, according to the popular children’s rhyme, “took an ax” and “gave her mother 40 whacks.” When Lizzie saw what she had done, she “gave her father 41.” Growing up in southeastern New England, I knew this delightful little poem well before I could read, and it gave me a perverse pleasure to recite it when our family crossed Fall River’s Braga Bridge headed for the beaches of Rhode Island.
Unlike my other early heroes of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock, Lizzie Borden was not a writer or a filmmaker using tales of murder to excite her readers. Lizzie was instead an actual murderer and, even better, one who got away with killing her parents. She was the primary suspect in the ax murders of her father and stepmother in August 1892, but thanks to inept police work and/or a malfunctioning judicial system, Borden walked … but not far. Relishing the opportunity for social advancement presented by a substantial inheritance, Lizzie stuck around, living in Fall River for the rest of her life without living down her reputation as an ax murderer. Since then, a whole industry has grown up around her, starting with the trial, which was a sensation that made daily headlines across the country in the 1890s.
From November 3-13, the intrepid team at Out of the Box Theatre Company will present a new rock musical based on the Lizzie Borden case at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo). Out of the Box founder Samantha Eve is directing, and four young women — Katie Moya, Samantha Corbett, Amy Soriano-Palagi, and Sydney Wesson — will play Lizzie and three of her closest associates, respectively. On a recent Wednesday, I was invited to drop in on a rehearsal, and what I heard was fascinating. The team of theater artists who have created this show — Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner — have fused the gothic sensibility of late 19th-century New England with the sound of late-20th-century riot-grrrl rock. Taking the two possible extenuating circumstances that Lizzie was abused by her father and then betrayed by a same-sex lover as points of departure, the show rips the Victorian hoopskirts off these four characters to (literally) reveal the corsets beneath, as the show’s second act will show.
For Moya, who plays Lizzie, the juxtaposition of harsh social constraints in the first half with untethered self-expression in the latter half is the point: “Lizzie gives a voice to women who did not have the opportunity to speak out at the time,” she said. “I feel like we need to do this show now. I’m not advocating murder, but I want people to know what Lizzie went through. Plus the music is really freaking cool.”
For tickets and information, call (805) 963-0408 or visit outoftheboxtheatre.org.